For a while, no one seemed to have noticed that the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, the prestigious institution in a palace on the edge of one of Copenhagen’s canals, was missing something quite prominent.

It was a bust of Frederik V, King of Denmark-Norway and Duke of Schleswig-Holstein from the 18th century. Frederik V, largely known as an affable, if ineffective, leader and alcoholic, was the academy’s founder, and a resemblance to him had been on display in the institution’s meeting hall for years. It disappeared in mid-fall, although school officials didn’t realize it was gone until early November.

A few days later, the fate of the bust was revealed. An anonymous group of artists had unscrewed it from its base, tucked a black trash bag over its head, and brought it to the edge of the canal before dumping it in. A video was posted showing the bust disappeared in the murky waters of Copenhagen harbor.

In a statement accompanying the video, the artists said they wanted to pledge solidarity with people affected by Denmark’s colonial past and encourage a dialogue with the institutions created during this period. Under Frederik V, the government heavily subsidized the nation’s slave and sugar trade and administered its colonies.

“We want an art world that relates to the actions of the past and takes responsibility – not only for the actions of the past, but also for the way in which colonialism is still active today,” said the group.

Even months later, the ensuing cloud of dust has revealed deep divisions in Danish society over how to reckon with its colonial past.

The Academy Council, an artistic advisory council that owns the bust, condemned the takeover, arguing that while it was imperative not to downplay past abuses, it was also worth noting that slavery was common in the Frederik V era. “It is also important that we do not impose the norms of our time on the past,” the statement said.

Some politicians and cultural leaders denounced the bust dumping as the epitome of the rampage culture and identity politics, others even went so far as to call it fascist. A well-known artist, Björn Norgaard, and art historian Merete Jankowski wrote articles in which they compared what the artists called “what happened” with the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddha statues from the 6th century in Afghanistan by extremists.

“The methods of identity politics are intolerance, exclusion, abolition of culture – and physical destruction, as we saw at the Academy of Fine Arts,” wrote Tom Jensen, editor-in-chief of the Danish newspaper Berlingske, in a comment. “The attitude is extremely extreme. Nothing can be left, everything that is there must be leveled. “

That the sunken bust was a decade-old plaster replica and not the original from the 18th century did little to reduce their indignation. When the bust was fished out of the harbor, the sea water had eaten shoulders and head.

About a week after the video was published, a department head at the art academy, Katrine Dirckinck-Holmfeld, stepped forward to take responsibility for the demise. She was released the same day and became the focus for opprobrium. She was supported by nearly 1,000 petitioners, including many artists and students, who called for her reinstatement. However, she was also attacked and threatened online.

Weeks later, the headmistress Kirsten Langkilde also left her post. Although Ms. Langkilde condemned the law, the Ministry of Culture attributed the departure to disagreements over how to deal with a number of challenges at the school, which was founded more than 265 years ago and is one of Denmark’s most prestigious academic institutions. The acceptance rate for Bachelor courses is 5 percent. Prominent alumni include the artist Olafur Eliasson and the designer and architect Arne Jacobsen.

Ms. Dirckinck-Holmfeld said she had hoped to spark a broader reflection on the role of cultural institutions during the colonial era and to combine this colonial legacy with the controversial politics currently in place, the so-called ghetto laws. Defended by the government to dismantle poorer non-Western immigrant enclaves and better integrate Danish society, the comprehensive range of initiatives has been criticized by many as harsh and discriminatory.

“The point here is to confront our own image,” said Ms. Dirckinck-Holmfeld. “In the Danish consciousness there is the idea that we were a very small and friendly colonial power and that racism is an American problem.”

Frederik V wasn’t the first Danish statue to be attacked by protesters last year. Figures of the missionary Hans Egede in Greenland and Copenhagen were smeared with red paint last summer and labeled with the word “decolonize”. Not long afterwards, on the Copenhagen coast, the words “racist fish” were sprayed on the base of the sculpture of the Little Mermaid, which has been repeatedly destroyed and even beheaded over the years to confuse the motifs.

But even when monuments were overthrown by racial justice activists in America and Britain last summer, many Danes did not see statues of their kings from the 18th century as problematic and view actions against them not as expressions of freedom of speech but as obstacles to it.

(After the Egede statue in Greenland was destroyed, the Greenlanders voted to keep it in place.)

“It’s the logic of the distraction,” said Mathias Danbolt, associate professor of art history at the University of Copenhagen. “The scandal is never about the visual, political or cultural history of colonialism. The scandal is always about the accusation. “

Denmark has long been considered a minor player in the slave trade, although recent research from Harvard has challenged this view. The nation’s colonies included the Danish West Indies, now the US Virgin Islands; Greenland; the Faroe Islands; and Iceland with smaller posts in parts of India and what is now Ghana. In Frederik V’s time, West Indian sugar was a major source of the country’s wealth, and some of Copenhagen’s finest buildings of the period were built with Lucre, a colonial trade.

Denmark was the first colonial nation to put a moratorium on the slave trade in 1792, though it allowed colonies to acquire enough slaves to support themselves until 1803, according to Lars Jensen, associate professor at Roskilde University. When decolonization began in earnest in the 20th century, Denmark had sold or ceded almost all of its colonies, with the exception of Greenland and the Faroe Islands (Iceland gained independence during World War II).

There is disagreement about the extent to which Denmark expects this past.

Joy Mogensen, the country’s minister of culture, said in an email that there was “a lively debate” in the country about its colonial history. She pointed to a sculpture called “Freedom”, a gift from the Virgin Islands, which was prominently positioned in central Copenhagen to commemorate what Mogensen described as “a shameful chapter in our history”. Another statue, “I am Queen Mary”, created by black artists and erected in 2018, commemorates a leader of a workers’ uprising in the 19th century against Danish colonial rule in St. Croix.

“It is important that we as a nation understand our past and are aware of the actions of our ancestors,” said Ms. Mogenson. However, Frederik V’s demise was an act of vandalism, and teachers in public institutions had moral obligations to act as role models.

But Mr Jensen, who specializes in post-colonial studies, said there was a blindness in Denmark about the extent of its colonial past and that it affects attitudes and treatment of migrants and refugees.

“The Danes have the idea of ​​themselves that they built this immaculate welfare society and built it on their own, so to speak, without help,” said Jensen. “All the economic resources that flowed through colonial trade don’t fit this picture so well.”